Anyone watching the Flyers this season has probably been singing the praises of Brian Elliott at one point or another. The current holder of the NHL’s “most likely to be mistaken for a high school gym teacher” award has been stellar in relief of Carter Hart this year, posting a sparkling triple slash of 2.37 GAA, .922 SV% and one shutout in five starts. Only a few seasons removed from a year when Dave Hakstol rode the Moose into the ground, it’s pretty remarkable to see this kind of standout performance, especially at his age. To find out how particularly good Elliott’s been by the numbers, I did a little digging. Here’s what I found.
How are we comparing Elliott to others?
In order to keep this simple, I’ll really just be looking at one stat: goals saved above expectation, or GSAx. For this adventure, we’ll be using the Evolving-Hockey.com expected goals model, so keep that in mind if you want to go looking for this data yourself (fair warning that the content is behind a paywall).
What exactly is GSAx? Well, the core concept makes sense. Expected goals models attempt to quantify the average value of a shot by taking a variety of data, weighing it, and using it to determine the probability of an unblocked shot attempt becoming a goal. Most models chiefly care about shot location and distance, which makes logical sense; on average, a shot from the slot will have a better chance to go in than a shot from the point. GSAx takes this stat and compares the expected results of a goalie with the tangible ones. If the shots a goalie faces in a given game have a cumulative xG value of 2.35 and the goalie allows two goals, they’ve had a positive GSAx game. Essentially the stat quantifies if a goalie performed well in spite of their team or if a goalie had a rough night. While not the end-all, be-all (no one number is or ever will be), it’s certainly a useful tool to look at leaguewide goalie performance, and I’ll be using it today. Now, let’s have a look at how Elliott stacks up:
Among his contemporaries:
Using the aforementioned GSAx to help account for team success, Elliott ranks 16th across the league in the 2020-2021 season, ahead of notable names like John Gibson, Tuukka Rask and David Rittich. Among backup goalies (fewer than half of their team’s starts) Elliott is 4th in this particular stat, and legitimately he should be 3rd if we eliminate injured starter Petr Mrazek from the list. In terms of his results at even strength, Elliott actually grades out below expectation, but his work on special teams has buoyed overall performance.
Among his comparables:
Since the start of the 2015-2016 NHL season, there have been 42 single-season occurrences of a goalie over/at the age of 35 making at least one start. That may sound like a sizable group, but when you consider that a lot of those are repeat seasons from a small collection of players (Rinne, Lundqvist) and compare that to the overall total of goalies who played at least one game over that span (535) it’s really an select few. Elliott only has one year that qualifies for this group, but that’s been done on purpose in an attempt to isolate his performance in the 2020-2021 season and compare it to those of a similar age.
Among all goalie seasons in that group of 42, Elliott’s 2020-2021 already ranks 15th by GSAx, well above average. Among netminders in the sample that were backups (played fewer than half the games for their team), the veteran backstop is 8th. In terms of goalies this year who have accomplished the same feat at a similar age, Elliott is only in the company of Marc-Andre Fleury (aged 36, Vegas’s starter) and Jaroslav Halak (aged 35, Boston’s backup).
In a smaller role and sample size, Elliott is putting up numbers comparable to 2015-2016 Roberto Luongo (went 35-19-6 with a 2.35 GAA, .922 SV% and four shutouts). Even with all of those caveats, that kind of performance is incredible stuff; this generation of goalies has had more success in old age than most before them (it’s not fair to compare to Terry Sawchuk’s bonkers 1966-67 season).
If the elder statesman of the orange & black continues to see the ice in short, well-rested stints, there’s little reason to think he’ll regress too heavily. It’s not often that the Flyers have a fantastic backup goalie, and it gives the team a bit of relief while young Carter Hart figures out how to adjust technically to the ever-adapting scorers of the NHL. The next time the Moose steps on the ice for Philly, take a second to appreciate how historic his performance has been to start the year, and say a quick prayer to the hockey gods for his continued success.